Plano, Texas, 2016. Attorney Elizabeth Julian (left) successfully sued HUD and Dallas over intentional discrimination. A settlement enabled Bernestine Williams (right) to move to this middle-class integrated neighborhood, where she raised two college-bound children.
AS A NATION, we have paid an enormous price for avoiding an obligation to remedy the unconstitutional segregation we have allowed to fester.
African Americans, of course, suffer from our evasion. But so, too, does the nation as a whole, as do whites in particular. Many of our serious national problems either originate with residential segregation or have become intractable because of it. We have greater political and social conflict because we must add unfamiliarity with fellow citizens of different racial backgrounds to the challenges we confront in resolving legitimate disagreements about public issues. Racial polarization stemming from our separateness has corrupted our politics, permitting leaders who ignore the interests of white working-class voters to mobilize them with racial appeals. Whites may support political candidates who pander to their sense of racial entitlement while advocating policies that perpetuate the inferior economic opportunities that some whites may face. Interracial political alliances become more difficult to organize when whites develop overly intolerant judgments of the unfortunate—from a need to justify their own acceptance of segregation that so obviously conflicts with both their civic ideals and their religious ones.
The existence of black ghettos is a visible reminder of our inequalities and history, a reminder whose implications are so uncomfortable that we find ways to avoid them. Whites can develop a dysfunctional cynicism from living in a society that proclaims values of justice while maintaining racial inequalities that belie those values.
It is not only the distribution of our national wealth that suffers from racial isolation but also our productivity in generating that wealth. Organizations work better if members are comfortable with colleagues’ cultural assumptions that may give rise to different perspectives. Social psychologists have found that segregation can give whites an unrealistic belief in their own superiority, leading to poorer performance if they feel less need to challenge themselves. Experiments show that when we are in teams with others from similar backgrounds, we tend to go along with the popular view rather than think for ourselves, resulting in less creative groups more prone to make errors.
AS FOR children, segregation is not healthy for either whites or African Americans. In segregated schools, neither can gain experience navigating the diverse environments in which, as adults, they will have to make their way.
For low-income African American children, the social and economic disadvantages with which they frequently come to school make higher achievement more difficult. Consider just one example, asthma, an affliction from which African American children suffer at nearly twice the rate of white children—probably because African Americans live in or near residential-industrial neighborhoods with more dust, pollutants, and vermin. Asthmatic children are more likely to awaken at night wheezing and, if they come to school after an episode, can be drowsy and less able to pay attention. A child who has more frequent absences—from poor health, unreliable transportation, having to stay home to care for younger siblings, or family instability—will have less opportunity to benefit from instruction.
Not all students with these disadvantages perform poorly. A few with asthma achieve at higher levels than typical children without this and similar disadvantages. But on average, a student with problems like these, stemming from life in segregated neighborhoods, performs more poorly.
If such a child attends school where few others have these handicaps—a mostly middle-class school—a teacher can devote special attention and help so that the child can accomplish more than he or she would otherwise. But if most students in a classroom share these impediments, teachers cannot devote special attention to each one. In that case, curriculum becomes remedial, and too much time is taken from instruction for discipline. High average achievement is almost impossible to realize in a low-income, segregated school, embedded in a segregated neighborhood. Many children in it could do much better in an integrated school, leading to their stronger and more likely positive contributions to society later, as adults.
The false sense of superiority that segregation fosters in whites contributes to their rejection of policies to integrate American society. The lower achievement of African American children that results from life in a segregated neighborhood adds another impediment to those children’s ability to merge into middle-class workplaces. In these ways, segregation perpetuates itself, and its continued existence makes it ever harder to reverse.
REMEDIES THAT can undo nearly a century of de jure residential segregation will have to be both complex and imprecise. After so much time, we can no longer provide adequate justice to the descendants of those whose constitutional rights were violated. Our focus can be only to develop policies that promote an integrated society, understanding that it will be impossible to fully untangle the web of inequality that we’ve woven.
The challenge is more difficult because low-income African Americans today confront not only segregation but also the income stagnation and blocked mobility faced by all Americans in families with low or moderate incomes. Historically, African Americans have made progress mostly when opportunity is expanding for all and whites are less fearful of competition from others. Thus, to provide an adequate environment for integration efforts, the United States also needs a full employment policy, minimum wages that return to their historic level and keep up with inflation, and a transportation infrastructure that makes it possible for low-income workers to get to jobs that are available. This book is not the place to argue for these and similar policies, but I would be remiss if I pretended that desegregation was compatible with economic stress and insecurity.
I hesitate to offer suggestions about desegregation policies and remedies because, imprecise and incomplete though they may be, remedies are inconceivable as long as citizens, whatever their political views, continue to accept the myth of de facto segregation. If segregation was created by accident or by undefined private prejudices, it is too easy to believe that it can only be reversed by accident or, in some mysterious way, by changes in people’s hearts. But if we—the public and policy makers—acknowledge that the federal, state, and local governments segregated our metropolitan areas, we may open our minds to considering how those same federal, state, and local governments might adopt equally aggressive policies to desegregate.
ONLY IF we can develop a broadly shared understanding of our common history will it be practical to consider steps we could take to fulfill our obligations. Short of that, we can make a start. Several promising programs are being pursued in some jurisdictions. Civil rights and fair housing organizations in most cities advocate and, in many cases, help to implement reforms that begin to ameliorate the worst effects of de jure segregation. While we attempt to build public and political support for the more far-reaching remedies, we should advance the presently possible reforms as well. We might begin with high school and middle school curricula. If young people are not taught an accurate account of how we came to be segregated, their generation will have little chance of doing a better job of desegregating than the previous ones.
One of the most commonly used American history textbooks is The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century. A thousand-page volume, published by Holt McDougal, a division of the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it lists several well-respected professors as authors and editors. The 2012 edition has this to say about residential segregation in the North: “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” That’s it. One passive voice sentence. No suggestion of who might have done the forcing or how it was implemented.
The Americans also contains this paragraph: “A number of New Deal programs concerned housing and home mortgage problems. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) provided government loans to homeowners who faced foreclosure because they couldn’t meet their loan payments. In addition, the 1934 National Housing Act created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). This agency continues to furnish loans for home mortgages and repairs today.”
The authors do not mention that an enduring legacy of the HOLC was to color-code every urban neighborhood by race so that African Americans would have great difficulty getting mortgages. That the FHA suburbanized the entire nation on a whites-only basis is overlooked. The textbook does acknowledge that “a number of” New Deal agencies—the truth is that it was virtually all—paid lower wages to African Americans than to whites but fails to refer to the residential segregation imposed by the government’s public housing projects.
United States History: Reconstruction to the Present, a 2016 textbook issued by the educational publishing giant Pearson, offers a similar account. It celebrates the FHA’s and VA’s support of single-family developments and gives Levittown as an example of suburbanization without disclosing that African Americans were excluded. It boasts of the PWA’s bridge, dam, power plant, and government building projects but omits describing its insistence on segregated housing. Like The Americans, it employs the passive voice to avoid explaining segregation: “In the North, too, African Americans faced segregation and discrimination. Even where there were no explicit laws, de facto segregation, or segregation by unwritten custom or tradition, was a fact of life. African Americans in the North were denied housing in many neighborhoods.”
This is mendacious. There was nothing unwritten about government policy to promote segregation in the North. It was spelled out in the FHA’s Underwriting Manual, in the PWA’s (and subsequent agencies’) racial designation of housing projects, in congressional votes on the 1949 public housing integration amendment, and in written directives of federal and state officials.
With very rare exceptions, textbook after textbook adopts the same mythology. If middle and high school students are being taught a false history, is it any wonder that they come to believe that African Americans are segregated only because they don’t want to marry or because they prefer to live only among themselves? Is it any wonder that they grow up inclined to think that programs to ameliorate ghetto conditions are simply undeserved handouts?
IN 2015, the Obama administration unveiled a rule to implement an underappreciated provision of the 1968 Fair Housing Act that requires jurisdictions that receive federal funds to “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law.
The rule instructed cities, towns, and suburbs to assess their concentrations (or absence) of disadvantaged populations and identify goals to remedy segregated conditions. The rule seemed to assume that segregated white communities want to do the right thing but don’t have adequate information to do so. Giving suburbs around the country the benefit of the doubt may have been a smart way to encourage them to fulfill their “affirmatively furthering” obligations; left unsaid was what HUD might do if suburbs don’t take steps necessary to advance integration. Did the Obama administration plan to deny federal funds to suburbs that remain segregated?
Police killings of young black men in 2014 and 2015 called renewed attention to our racial divide. The presidential election of 2016 revealed that the nation was almost evenly split between those who believe that we’ve done too much to remedy racial inequality and those who believe we’ve done not nearly enough. In early 2017, congressional Republicans proposed legislation to prohibit enforcement of the “affirmatively furthering” rule. But even if the rule were to survive, or if a future administration reintroduces it, effective remedies for racial inequality will be unlikely unless the public is disabused of the de facto myth and comes to understand how government at all levels insulted our constitutional principles regarding race.
IN 1970, stung by riots in more than a hundred cities by angry and embittered African Americans, HUD secretary George Romney tried to pursue integration more vigorously than any other administration, either before or since. Observing that the federal government had imposed a suburban “white noose” around urban African American neighborhoods, Romney devised a program he called Open Communities that would deny federal funds (for water and sewer upgrades, green space, sidewalk improvements, and other projects for which HUD financial support is needed) to suburbs that hadn’t revised their exclusionary zoning laws to permit construction of subsidized apartments for lower-income African American families. The anger about Open Communities among voters in the Republican Party’s suburban base was so fierce that President Nixon reined in Romney, required him to repudiate his plan, and eventually forced him from office.
George Romney undertook his desegregation initiative only a few years after a series of civil rights measures had been enacted into law and after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders and activists. It followed upon the release of a widely discussed report on the causes of African American rioting, published by an investigatory commission appointed by President Johnson and chaired by Illinois governor Otto Kerner. Because of all this attention to the suppression of African Americans and to the federal government’s partial responsibility for it, many Americans were receptive to Romney’s argument, although they were not sufficiently numerous or influential for him to prevail. Today many fewer Americans are familiar with the extent of de jure segregation. The intellectual and political groundwork has not been laid for a revival of the George Romney program or for the Obama administration’s more modest 2015 rule. Americans are unaware of the de jure segregation history that makes the rule necessary.
IT IS not difficult to conceive of ways to rectify the legacy of de jure segregation. In what follows, I’ll suggest a few, first some that could not be enacted in today’s political environment, and then some modest reforms that are still not politically possible but are within closer reach.
We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today’s market rates (approximately $350,000). It should then resell the properties to qualified African Americans for $75,000, the price (in today’s dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so. The government should enact this program in every suburban development whose construction complied with the FHA’s discriminatory requirements. If Congress established such a program and justified it based on the history of de jure segregation, courts should uphold it as appropriate.
Of course, no presently constituted Congress would adopt such a policy and no presently constituted court would uphold it. Taxpayers would rebel at the cost, as well as at the perceived undeserved gift to African Americans. I present this not as a practical proposal but only to illustrate the kind of remedy that we would consider and debate if we disabused ourselves of the de facto segregation myth.
THE SEGREGATION we should remedy is not only that of low-income families but that of middle-class African Americans who currently reside in towns like Lakeview, where Vince Mereday settled and which is still today 85 percent African American; or Roosevelt, Long Island (currently 79 percent African American), another predominantly black middle-class town near where other Mereday relatives found homes; or Prince George’s County (65 percent African American) outside Washington, D.C.; or Calumet Heights (93 percent African American) outside Chicago.
Middle-class suburbs like these are attractive to many African Americans, and no policy should force them to integrate against their will. But we should provide incentives for integration because these suburbs have disadvantages for their residents and for the rest of us. The most important disadvantage is that they are frequently adjacent to low-income communities. About one-third of middle- and upper-income black families now live in neighborhoods bordering severely disadvantaged areas, while only 6 percent of income-similar white families do so. Black middle-class adolescents living in such close proximity to ghettos must resist the lure of gangs and of alienated behavior if they aspire to duplicate their parents’ middle-class status. Even if they avoid such a trap, youth growing up in predominantly African American communities, even middle-class ones, will gain no experience mastering a predominantly white professional culture in which they, as adults, will want to succeed.
Federal subsidies for middle-class African Americans to purchase homes in suburbs that have been racially exclusive are the most obvious incentive that could spur integration. Again, such assistance is both politically and judicially inconceivable today. Although government financial aid of this kind is still out of reach, advocates of integration can express their support in very local and even informal ways. If one, not the only one, of the reasons that middle-class African Americans hesitate to integrate is their expectation of hostility (from subtly hostile neighbors, from police who follow their sons home), then community welcoming committees that, among other actions, insist upon appropriate police training could be useful. Making a point, perhaps even a requirement, of advertising houses for sale in such neighborhoods with real estate agents who do business in segregated African American communities could also help.
ANOTHER REMEDY would be a ban on zoning ordinances that prohibit multifamily housing or that require all single-family homes in a neighborhood to be built on large lots with high minimum requirements for square footage. These rules prevent both lower-income and middle-class families from settling in affluent suburbs. Exclusionary zoning ordinances were partly motivated by unconstitutional racial animosity. Banning them is not only good public policy but constitutionally permissible, if not at the federal level, then by states.
Alternatively, less extreme than an outright ban on exclusionary zoning, Congress could amend the tax code to deny the mortgage interest deduction to property owners in suburbs that do not have or are not taking aggressive steps to attract their fair share of low- and moderate-income housing, both multiunit and single family, whether for rental or sale. A fair share is one that is close to that of low- and moderate-income families in the suburb’s metropolitan area, or as a constitutional remedy, the share of African Americans in the metropolitan area. How “close” is “close to” in a region with a substantial African American population? Perhaps plus or minus 10 percent. The New York metropolitan area has an African American population of about 15 percent today. If we used a plus-or-minus-10-percent rule, then any suburb whose African American population was less than 5 percent should be considered segregated and required to take steps to integrate. For any community whose African American population was greater than 25 percent, special incentives should be offered to help families move to integrated towns or to attract nonblack families to live there.
Complementing a ban on exclusionary zoning is a requirement for inclusionary zoning: a positive effort to integrate low- and moderate-income families into middle-class and affluent neighborhoods. Two states, New Jersey and Massachusetts, currently have “fair share” requirements, based on income, not on race. They address the isolation of low-income families in urban areas and their absence from middle-class suburbs. They make a contribution to integration but do not take the additional step of helping to integrate middle-income African American families into white middle-class suburbs. Legislation in New Jersey requires suburbs that do not have a “fair share” of their metropolitan area’s low-income housing to permit developers to build multiunit projects that are frequently subsidized either with Section 8 or Low-Income Housing Tax Credit funds. Similar legislation in Massachusetts requires developers in towns without a fair share of subsidized housing to set aside units in middle-income projects for low-income families. Developments that do so are permitted more units per acre than would otherwise be allowed. Douglas Massey and his colleagues, in Climbing Mount Laurel, describe one such successful project in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia. Disproving fears of the area’s middle-class residents, the project did not bring crime into the town of Mount Laurel, diminish the quality of its public school, or otherwise harm the community’s character. If other states were to adopt legislation like that in New Jersey and Massachusetts, it would be a significant step toward the integration of all low-income families, not only African Americans.
Some municipalities have “inclusionary zoning” ordinances that accomplish at a local level what the New Jersey and Massachusetts programs do statewide. The regulations usually require developers to set aside a share of units in new projects for low- or moderate-income families. As in Massachusetts, the developers are offered an incentive (higher density than is normally permitted, for example) to comply. The ordinances are sometimes effective, but unless they are implemented on a metropolitan-wide basis, their value as an integration tool is limited. If an inclusionary zoning ordinance applies only to a single town, developers can avoid its requirements and serve the same housing market by building instead in a neighboring town without such rules.
Montgomery County, Maryland, has a strong countywide inclusionary zoning ordinance. Like most such regulations, it requires developers in even the most affluent communities to set aside a percentage of units (in the case of Montgomery County, 12 to 15 percent) for moderate-income families. It then goes further: the public housing authority purchases a third of these set-aside units for rental to the lowest-income families. The program’s success is evidenced by the measurably higher achievement of low-income African American children who live and attend school in the county’s wealthiest suburbs. Montgomery County’s program should be widely duplicated.
IN 1993, a quarter century after the Fair Housing Act was enacted, John Boger, a University of North Carolina law professor, lamented the subsequent lack of progress toward residential integration. He suggested a national “Fair Share Act” that would require every state to establish mechanisms to ensure that each of its suburban or municipal jurisdictions houses a representative share of the African American as well as low- and moderate-income population in its metropolitan region. Professor Boger proposed that homeowners in jurisdictions that did not make progress toward such racial and economic integration would lose 10 percent of their mortgage interest and property tax deductions. The penalty would increase in each year of a jurisdiction’s noncompliance with fair share goals until the entire deduction would be lost.
If enacted, the plan would give citizens a powerful economic incentive to press their local officials to take reasonable steps toward integration. But the idea was not intended to be punitive. Professor Boger argued that the Internal Revenue Service should keep funds equivalent to the lost deductions in an account at the Treasury, reserving these funds for helping segregated communities whose residents had lost those deductions to develop public housing or low- and moderate-income subsidized housing. Because Professor Boger’s purpose was not to challenge the de factosegregation myth, he did not add that such reserved funds could also be used to subsidize the middle-class or even affluent African Americans to reside in suburbs they could not otherwise easily afford. But in view of the de jure origins of suburban segregation, this too would be an appropriate use of the withheld taxpayer deductions. Professor Boger’s proposal for a Fair Share Act is no less timely today than when he first advanced it.
SUCCESSFUL CIVIL rights lawsuits have led to a few innovative programs that integrate low-income families into middle-class neighborhoods. In 1995 the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued HUD and the Baltimore Housing Authority because as these agencies demolished public housing projects, they resettled tenants (frequently with Section 8 vouchers) almost exclusively in segregated low-income areas. The lawsuit resulted in commitments by the federal and local governments to support the former residents in moving to high-opportunity suburbs. The authority now funds an increased subsidy, higher than the regular Section 8 voucher amount, to families that rent in nonsegregated communities throughout Baltimore County and other nearby counties. Participants can use their vouchers in neighborhoods where the poverty rate is less than 10 percent, the population is no more than 30 percent African American or other minority, and fewer than 5 percent of households are subsidized. The mobility program not only places voucher holders in apartments; it also purchases houses on the open market and then rents them to program participants. It provides intensive counseling to the former public housing residents to help them adjust to their new, predominantly white and middle-class environs. Counseling covers topics such as household budgeting, cleaning and maintenance of appliances, communicating with landlords, and making friends with neighbors.
Those who have participated in this Baltimore program left communities with average poverty rates of 33 percent and found new dwellings where average rates were 8 percent. In their former neighborhoods, the African American population was 80 percent; in their new ones it is 21 percent. However, only a small proportion of former public housing tenants can participate in the program. Most use their Section 8 vouchers as do recipients nationwide: to subsidize living in already segregated low-income areas.
A similar program arose from a lawsuit filed in 1985 by a civil rights group against the Dallas Housing Authority and HUD over their use of the public housing or Section 8 programs to perpetuate segregation. Here too the case settlement provides families with a higher-value voucher when they relocate to a non-segregated suburb where the poverty rate is low and where public school students are high performing. A Dallas civil rights group (the Inclusive Communities Project) uses settlement funds for security deposits and counseling services to help families make the adjustment from racially separate public housing and Section 8 neighborhoods to integrated suburban environments. As in Baltimore, the Dallas program desegregates only a small percentage of families who are eligible for housing assistance.
A few other cities also now have modest programs (some also resulting from settlements in lawsuits that challenged how the Section 8 program reinforces segregation) that assist voucher holders in moving to lower-poverty areas.
Several municipalities and states outlaw flat refusals by landlords to lease to Section 8 voucher families, and those jurisdictions seem to be making a bit more progress toward integration. To allow owners to claim they are not discriminating by race when renters are turned away solely because they are subsidized makes a mockery of the Fair Housing Act. Such discrimination should be prohibited everywhere.
The Section 8 voucher program is not an entitlement. Many more eligible families don’t receive vouchers than do, because Section 8 budgetary appropriations are too small. In 2015 approximately one million families had vouchers—but another 6 million who qualified went without them. There are long waiting lists for vouchers in every city that has a large African American low-income pop-ulation. Indeed, in many cities, the waiting lists have been closed. So, in addition to prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders, Congress should appropriate funds to provide vouchers for all whose low-income status qualifies.
The housing subsidy that the federal government gives to middle-class (mostly white) homeowners is an entitlement: any homeowner with enough income to file a detailed tax return can claim a deduction both for property taxes and mortgage insurance. The government does not tell homeowners that only the first few who file can claim the deductions and the rest are out of luck because the money has been used up. But that is how we handle the Section 8 subsidy for lower-income (mostly African American) renters.
So long as a shortage of vouchers persists, Congress should require that local housing authorities establish a preference for tenants who volunteer to use their Section 8 benefits to find apartments in integrated, low-poverty neighborhoods. To make this possible, other reforms are necessary.
Voucher amounts are normally set to permit leasing of apartments whose rents are close to the median for a metropolitan area. But rental amounts that are typical for a metropolitan area overall are too low for leasing in most low-poverty neighborhoods. So voucher amounts will have to be increased if programs like Baltimore’s are to expand nationwide, and more dollars—for security deposits, for example—made available as well. Large numbers of counselors and social workers will have to be hired and trained. Funds will also have to be authorized to enable authorities to purchase single-family homes for some former public housing residents. In Baltimore the court order compelled HUD to come up with such funds. Expanding this program will require congressional action.
In its waning days, the Obama administration announced that HUD would begin calculating Section 8 voucher amounts for smaller areas than a full metropolis. Section 8 recipients would receive larger subsidies to rent apartments in higher-cost, middle-class neighborhoods and smaller subsidies to use in low-income neighborhoods where rents are lower. As this is written, it is too soon to know whether the new administration will maintain or reverse this new policy.
Other, more technical reforms of the Section 8 program could also help. For example, the vouchers are usually administered by a city housing authority that has no right to permit the vouchers to be used outside city limits. Vouchers can’t contribute much to integration unless such jurisdictional rules are eliminated and the program is organized on a metropolitan basis.
State policy could also improve the potential of Section 8 to promote integration. Illinois presently extends a property tax reduction to landlords in low-poverty neighborhoods who rent to voucher holders. Other states should do likewise.
The federal Department of the Treasury should require states to distribute the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits to developers building in integrated high-opportunity neighborhoods. In segregated areas, a project that purports to help revitalize the community should be approved only as part of a coordinated urban development program that includes transportation infrastructure, job creation, inclusionary zoning, supermarkets, community policing, and other characteristics of healthy neighborhoods. But when developers have claimed to use tax credits to upgrade urban neighborhoods, what they have most frequently meant is bringing modern housing to an impoverished community. New construction is fine, but it can also reinforce segregation.
Fifty years of experience has shown that mobilizing the funds and support for revitalizing low-income communities is as politically difficult as integrating suburbs, so we continue to have more tax credit projects, and more Section 8 housing in segregated neighborhoods, without the surrounding community improvements that were promised. Revitalization does generally occur when a neighborhood becomes attractive to the middle class, but all too often the gentrification that follows does not include strict enforcement of inclusionary zoning principles, and it gradually drives the African American poor out of their now-upgraded neighborhoods and into newly segregated inner-ring suburbs.
FRANK AND Rosa Lee Stevenson raised three daughters in their segregated Richmond neighborhood, where average student performance was among the lowest in the state of California. When the girls were in the primary grades in the late 1950s and early 1960s, African American children composed only 22 percent of Richmond’s elementary school population, but six of the district’s elementary schools were over 95 percent African American.
Schools in Richmond were segregated primarily because federal and local housing policies had segregated the city itself. But Richmond school officials took additional measures to ensure that African American children did not attend the same school as white children. For example, the Peres school, with a 93 percent black enrollment in 1967, was situated west of the railroad tracks in a neighborhood that included three blocks that had remained white. The school board carved the three-block strip out of the Peres attendance zone and assigned students who lived there to attend the all-white Belding school, across the railroad tracks.
The school that the Stevenson daughters attended, Verde Elementary in unincorporated North Richmond, was west of the railroad tracks and not far from the oil refinery. The school had originally been constructed in 1951 to prevent black students from attending nearby schools in white neighborhoods. Verde was still 99 percent African American in 1968 when it became so overcrowded that the school district had to respond. Meanwhile nearby schools in white neighborhoods had many empty seats as a growing number of white families left Richmond for the suburbs. But instead of allowing African American children to occupy those seats, the district decided to build an addition to Verde. This was such an obvious attempt to perpetuate segregation that civil rights groups sued. The trial judge ordered integration and later told an interviewer that he had been offended by the racially biased testimony of a school board member who defended the district’s policy.
Instead of appealing the judge’s decision, the district agreed to a desegregation plan that modified attendance zones. But before the policy could be implemented, voters elected an anti-integration majority to the school board, which then reneged on its commitment. Instead, it adopted a voluntary program in which African American children could choose to attend a predominantly white school. By 1980 only one in six black children had done so. These were generally children with the most educationally sophisticated and motivated parents. Their transfers left schools in Richmond’s black neighborhoods with the most disadvantaged students, those with the lowest academic performance and greatest behavioral challenges. Even today, as low-income Hispanic families replace African Americans in North Richmond, all students at the Verde School receive subsidized lunches, and 58 percent of its parents have not completed high school.
Richmond’s school board could easily segregate its elementary schools because Richmond’s neighborhoods were segregated, but for junior and senior high schools, the district created artificial boundaries that prevented many African American students from enrolling in their local schools. Instead, the district transported them to predominantly African American schools that were already more congested than the white ones. Whites also had to travel longer distances to avoid attending heavily African American schools nearer their homes. The assistant superintendent explained at a 1958 public meeting called to protest the segregation that the boundaries “assign to [mostly black] Richmond Union High School the bulk of students who can benefit from the shop program there and . . . the existing boundaries of [mostly white] Harry Ells High School are valid because the students who are grouped there are those who can profit from the academic program.”
Civil rights protests forced the school district to redraw the high school attendance boundaries in 1959, but because of neighborhood segregation, African Americans remained concentrated in two of the eleven junior high schools and in Richmond High School. That’s where Terry, the youngest of the Stevenson girls, graduated in 1970. Off and on, she took community college courses but never completed a college degree. She worked all her life, in day care centers and as a nursing assistant, and had six children of her own.
Terry Stevenson’s two sons are warehouse workers. Of her four daughters, two are certified nurse assistants, one answers phone inquiries at a bank, and one is a security guard. Terry Stevenson’s sisters also have children. They include a paralegal working at a law firm, a pharmacist assistant, a clerical worker at a government social service agency, and a department store sales clerk.
What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated Milpitas, not in a de jure segregated Richmond? Should they now have partners with similar occupations, their household incomes are unlikely to rise above the fourth income quintile of Americans. How much farther on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb if they had grown up in a well-educated household as a result of Terry and her sisters being permitted to attend a high school that was designed for students “who can profit from the academic program,” rather than one that instead offered manual training? How different might the lives of the Stevenson grandchildren have been were it not for the federal government’s unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents, and their parents as well? What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill this obligation?